Barro Blanco: International Events put the Spotlight on Hydroelectric Dams

On March 3, Honduran indigenous rights leader and environmental champion, Berta Cáceres, was murdered in her home.  A co-founder of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (Copinh), Cáceres was an active and vocal opponent to a large four-dam hydroelectric project in the Gualcarque River basin, which includes the Agua Zarca Dam.  Just last year, she won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her work against the dam, which would stop the flow of a sacred river and disrupt the movement of food and supplies to local villages (1).  While police told media outlets that her death was the result of a robbery gone wrong, it is thought that her work against the dam - and the Honduran government itself - could be responsible for Cáceres' murder (2).  

The company that is building Agua Zarca, Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA), "has close contacts with the Honduran military, and orchestrated a campaign of intimidation against Berta and her comrades. Three other COPINH activists have been killed for their resistance against Agua Zarca" (3).  In a radio interview, her 84-year-old mother stated, “I have no doubt that she has been killed because of her struggle and that soldiers and people from the dam are responsible, I am sure of that. I hold the government responsible” (4).  Just two weeks after Cáceres' murder, Nelson García, another active member of COPINH, was shot near his home, increasing the death toll surrounding Agua Zarca to five (1). 

In response to the tragic and unthinkable events in Honduras, the Dutch development bank helping to fund the project, FMO, has decided to “suspend all activities in Honduras, effective immediately. This means that we will not engage in new projects or commitments and that no disbursements will be made, including the Agua Zarca project”(6).  

Interestingly, the FMO has also supported other controversial hydroelectric projects in Latin American countries, including the Santa Rita Dam in Guatemala, and the Barro Blanco dam in Panama.  Santa Rita has been attributed to the deaths of six indigenous people.  At least two people have died fighting against Barro Blanco (3).  Since the last fatal incident in 2013, the Barro Blanco protests have been heated, with police at times using force - such as pepper spray - to remove protesters, but luckily, no more deaths have ensued.  

Testing of the Barro Blanco has begun, despite ongoing opposition from the Ng ä be and others.

Testing of the Barro Blanco has begun, despite ongoing opposition from the Ngäbe and others.

In Panama, the 16-year fight over Barro Blanco continues.  As we describe in our previous blog post on the subject, the construction of Barro Blanco was suspended temporarily in February of 2015, but in July, the government decided that construction of the project, which was almost complete, would resume (7).  In January of 2016, Minister of the Environment Mirei Endara and President Varela stated that the dam would be completed.  "All that remains is a final dialogue prior to the flooding of the dam," Varela announced. "We will have a dialogue with all the leaders of the area and with the residents of the affected communities" (8).

It is unclear what the results of such a dialogue would be, as the Ngäbe protesters continue to call for cessation of the project, and that all further hydroelectric development in the Comarca must cease. In 2013, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples declared that the people impacted had been inadequately consulted and that things must change for future projects. In 2014, a complaint was filed with an independent grievance mechanism set up by Dutch bank FMO (14). The findings of this review did show that Ngabe communities were not adequately consulted, but it does not seem that anything has been done to date to make amends (13).  

On March 17th, 2016, Panamanian president Juan Carlos Varela and other government officials held a three-hour meeting with indigenous representatives to try to arrive at some sort of "agreement" (4).  Government minister Milton Henríquez said that they were committed to not filling the dam until they arrived at a "convenient" agreement for all parties and for the country, and that he hoped that this ongoing dialogue would serve as a model for conflict resolution (5).  

Meanwhile, testing of the dam has already begun.  ASEP, the National Authority of Public Services in Panama, states that Comarca authorities and residents of the surrounding communities were notified of this process (10).  Nevertheless, protesters such as Clementina Perez said that she and other residents would stay behind even after being asked to leave (9).  ASEP reports that ll protesters were removed from the area without any arrests being made (15).  The administrator of ASEP, Roberto Meana, insists that these are only tests to make sure that the dam does not leak, and that the dam will not be filled for operational purposes until the panel dialogue is complete (11).  

As the completion of the dam looms ever closer, the protest movement grows ever stronger.  On May 27, the General Congress of the Emberá Wounaan and the General Congress of the Emberá of Alto Bayano, two other indigenous groups in Panama, expressed their solidarity with the Ngäbe, calling for suspension of Barro Blanco.  They also called for transparency and respect for indigenous law from government leaders, and that the "dialogues" between the government and indigenous leaders not have 'double agendas,' with the purpose of furthering the dam at the expense of indigenous people. (12)  Protests continue along the Pan-American Highway as well.  At UNACHI - the Autonomous University of Chiriquí, where Few for Change Scholar Edgar is now enrolled, a group of students protested on the side of the Pan-American Highway for two hours last Thursday, chanting, "La comarca no se vende" - The Comarca is not for sale (11).

Barro Blanco, in contrast to Agua Zarca, may culminate in a shift towards proper consultation and treatment of indigenous peoples in future hydroelectric projects. However, in the case of Barro Blanco itself, the results of the dialogue and 16 years of protesting remain to be seen. We remain hopeful that the government and the protesters will reach a fair and just resolution. Few for Change will continue to report on the issue as it unfolds.



















Update: Barro Blanco Project on Hold (February 2015) 

Complaint filed against Barro Blanco dam currently under review (July 2014)

Barring Barro Blanco: A Step Toward Justice for the Ngäbe-Buglé (September 2013)

Barring Barro Blanco: The Ngäbe stand up against a hydroelectric dam (September 2012)